To me, biography is something of an alien landscape entered rarely and (I admit) reluctantly. I stumbled upon Laura Thompson’s Take Six Girls: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters (2015) quite by chance and by way of fiction. About a year ago, enchanted by Evelyn Waugh’s depictions of the Bright Young People, I finally read Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Both are fiction but draw heavily from fact, and Mitford’s wit (shot through with melancholy) pushed them high into my favourites list. I knew—vaguely—who the Mitford sisters were: an infamous gaggle of girls who came of age between world wars and whom, as Nancy repeatedly noted, could not separate the personal from the political. They were perhaps the one family in Britain who between them could boast close friendships with both Hitler and Churchill.
However, they’d probably still be on my ‘must read more about that…’ list, had I not spied the name ‘Mitford’ in the Adelaide Writers’ Week programme and attended Thompson’s session on a whim. By the end of the hour, I was eager for more. I hightailed it to the book tent to collect a copy of Take Six Girls and settled down to read, for once ignoring my teetering review pile (well played, Writers’ Week. Well played).
So, full confession, a) I have no idea how to review biography, and b) I raved about Take Six Girls so much that my dad (who loves biography) insisted that I leave the book in Adelaide with him when I flew home to Perth, meaning that I don’t even have the book to refer to or quote from. Clearly, much thoughtful analysis lies ahead. I considered not writing about it at all, but I do so want to recommend it. Thompson starts with a brief introduction to the girls, the Mitford myth and the political climate they helped shape. A brief recap for those who aren’t familiar: Nancy (1904 – 1973) was a novelist and biographer; Pamela (1907 – 1994) was a country woman, perhaps the dullest of the bunch; Diana (1910 – 2003) was hailed as one of the most beautiful women of the age and first married Bryan Guinness (yes, of Guinness beer) then left him to marry Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists; Unity (1914 – 1948) was a close confidant of Hitler, shot herself in the head the day war broke out and survived for another nine years; Jessica (1917 – 1996) was a journalist and communist and eloped with Esmond Romilly to serve in the Spanish Civil War and was later active in the American Civil Rights movement; and Deborah (1920 – 2014) married to become the Duchess of Devonshire and ran Chatsworth House, one of Britain’s most impressive estates. You can just imagine what family get-togethers were like.
Thompson then begins the book proper by offering some background on the Mitford family and its place among the British aristocracy. She draws vivid portraits of the girls’ parents, David and Sydney, and evokes the sisters’ rather unconventional childhood being shunted from one sprawling estate to the next. She guides her reader through each girl’s debut but dedicates the bulk of the book to the extraordinary events that occurred once these six remarkable women were let loose on polite society.
Thompson doesn’t seek to mask her love of the Mitfords, but nor does she romanticise the sisters or exonerate them. Rather, she seeks first to differentiate between reality and myth (the latter largely perpetuated by Nancy’s novels and Jessica’s ostensibly non-fiction Hons and Rebels (1960)) and then to understand (rather than justify) each sister’s actions and beliefs and the ever-shifting alliances between them. To do so, she moves seamlessly between the personal and the political.
In her research for the book, Thompson met with the last two surviving Mitfords, Dianna and Deborah, as well as some the Mitford sisters’ children. Her narration is peppered with quotes and snippets from the sisters’ writings (particularly their letters), which adds credibility to the text and flavours it with the famous Mitford wit. However, even without the sisters’ voices, it would be an enjoyable read, with Thompson combining her considerable research with wit and charm of her own.
Finally, Thompson doesn’t assume her reader possesses encyclopaedic knowledge of the who’s who of early-to-mid 20th-century British aristocracy, or of WWII politics. Rather she navigates her reader through her research like an expert hostess welcoming a guest to her party, offering succinct introductions and establishing context as she goes.
Take Six Girls makes for compelling reading, whether you’re a Mitford buff or merely curious.
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